By Deepak Sinha
The theatre of the absurd was recently played out in public on the saga of the Agusta Westland helicopter procurement when the CBI suddenly arrested Air Chief Marshal SP Tyagi (Retd), former Air Chief, like a common criminal after three years of charge sheeting him. However, he was released on bail eleven days later with the trial court casting serious aspersions on the actions of the CBI suggesting that it has little or no evidence for its actions. It is instructive and certainly not coincidental that only ACM Tyagi was arrested while others in Government who may have been involved appear to have gone scot free, till date.
While the scam investigation does make for good headlines, the question that bothers me most is why nobody has questioned the necessity for procurement of these helicopters.
It is time now to ask ourselves what has been its impact, especially on the military, which found itself dragged in willy-nilly and has faced the brunt of all investigations undertaken till now. While the former Air Force Chief, Air Chief Marshal SP Tyagi, has already been tarred and branded all but guilty by the media, along with a few other officers who may have been involved in the selection process, there is a deafening silence, both in the media and among politicians, regarding the involvement of politicians and bureaucrats without whose active connivance wrongdoing could not have occurred, if it did.
It is incomprehensible that bureaucrats from the Ministry of Defence appear to be getting away unscathed. Whether Air Chief Marshal SP Tyagi is guilty of any wrong doing or not, the central fact that cannot be ignored is that the Ministry of Defence is itself at the epicenter of this controversy. That should logically turn the spotlight on the then Defence Secretary and other bureaucrats of the Defence Ministry, the Joint Secretary(Air) and the Director General (Acquisitions) for example, who must have certainly played a pivotal role in all dealings that occurred over the years.
In this context, it coincidentally turns out that between 2003 and 2013; more or less the period within which requirements were altered and the helicopter contracted for, Mr. Sashi Kant Sharma, was the one bureaucrat who held all of these positions, at various times, during his tenures in the MOD. It is difficult to believe that it was sheer providence or his proven abilities that then led to his appointment as the Comptroller and Auditor General by Prime Minister Manmohan Singh. It is ironic that he is now required to follow up on adverse findings against the MOD on this procurement presented by his predecessor to Parliament. Coincidence surely has some shelf life and does anybody seriously believe that our Service Chiefs actually have powers to fiddle with procurement?
While the scam investigation does make for good headlines, the question that bothers me most is why nobody has questioned the necessity for procurement of these helicopters. After all, our politicians claim to be sons of the soil and no different from us, so why should they be so reluctant to travel around in helicopters that are otherwise in service within the Indian Air Force. Why do they believe that they should all be treated as our sons-in-law and travel in luxury, even if it comes at stupendous costs, while the rest of the country scrabbles around in what passes for public transport? True the Mi-8, which was the aircraft being replaced, had outlived its utility, but the fact of the matter is that it was already under replacement with the Mi-17 V, with much better avionics and available at a fraction of the cost of the Agusta helicopter. It is the work horse of our helicopter fleet in the IAF.
Like we have seen in recent examples of political behaviour in some states, such actions are not just restricted to luxury travel by air, but also to travel by road. A luxury sedan is passé, and only a high end SUV will do. We have a Minister in Karnataka who insisted on being provided a Rs 50 Lakh SUV, from tax payer money, to enable him to travel around his constituency to do his duty, because of a bad back. While one is filled with utmost admiration for his dedication to duty at great personal discomfort, one cannot help but feel that the State of Karnataka will surely not suffer a breakdown of governance, from what it already does, if it had refused his modest contribution and given that task to a more physically fit individual.
Not to be outdone, the former BJP Chief Minister and its present State President, B S Yedyurappa, too had taken a similar ill-advised step but hurriedly backed down when it came in for wide-spread criticism, even from the Party High Command. Like sirens, red lights and security (preferably Black Cats), high end transportation must surely do much for the ego of the political class, especially as they have little to show in terms of personality or leadership skills to set them apart.
Adopting a scatter gun approach to tackle this scandal, just as we did post the Bofors scam with devastating results on our Army’s artillery capability that impacts us even to this day, would be foolish.
However, what is a matter of some shame and great disapprobation is the manner in which the Air Chiefs have acceded to this VIP luxury syndrome, probably because they would also avail the same facilities and be able to massage their own egos as well. That they had a greater responsibility towards their own service and should have insisted on the Government of the day to first arrange finances to select and procure replacements for the MIG-21 fighters that had long outlived their life and were seen as death traps killing the best and brightest among our pilots. That is what they were paid to do and what the rank and file of the service would have expected of them. Incidentally, the MIG-21 joined the IAF in the 1960’s and will continue in service till 2022 as per estimates in public domain, which must certainly be a record of some sort for an Air Force which aspires to compete with the best.
This is not just about the IAF, while Mr. Anthony had no compunctions in ensuring luxury for VIP’s, he could not even ensure the provision of new batteries for INS Sindhuratna, the Kilo-class submarine, that suffered a fire on board leading to the loss of two officers, reportedly because of a battery malfunction which was not unexpected as they had already outlived their functional life. The fact that the Naval Chief, who while accepting moral responsibility, probably resigned in sheer disgust at the unfortunate state of affairs, made little difference to the Government speaks volumes.
Finally, one can be certain that politicians will continue to milk this matter in forthcoming elections, regardless of whether evidence of wrong doing is proved by our investigative agencies. What is a matter of grave concern is the fact that the MOD has already commenced cancelling contracts with other subsidiaries of Finnmeccanica, the firm involved in the scandal, which will leave damaging voids in our defence preparedness. Adopting a scatter gun approach to tackle this scandal, just as we did post the Bofors scam with devastating results on our Army’s artillery capability that impacts us even to this day, would be foolish. In all of this, Messrs. Modi and Parrikar would do well to heed the sane advice of James Baker, two time member of the US Cabinet and Chief of Staff to Ronald Reagan and George Bush Senior, when he is purported to have remarked “If you’re not gonna pull the trigger, don’t point the damn gun”.
This article originally appeared in Indian Defence Review.